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'No school wants to be the one to close due to Covid': Pressure is on as thousands of students return to class

Some schools have sacrificed computer rooms, home economics facilities and fitness spaces to ensure a safe reopening.

The sports hall in St Kevin's Secondary School in Dunlavin, Co Wicklow.
The sports hall in St Kevin's Secondary School in Dunlavin, Co Wicklow.
Image: thejournal.ie

WHEN THE THEN Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced from Washington on 12 March that schools were to close due to rising numbers of Covid-19 in Ireland, no one anticipated that it would be almost a full six months before they would reopen again. 

Over the summer – and under the guidance of public health professionals – teachers, principals, and even students have been working to Covid-proof school buildings across the country ahead of the return of thousands to classrooms for the new school term.

Now, against the backdrop of rising cases nationwide, schools are once again under pressure to ensure that all students can return to learning in a safe environment over the coming days.  

“People are worried, everybody is, and as much as any parent wants their child to come to school, they’re also saying ‘how?’,” Judi O’Boyle, Deputy Principal at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Rush, Co Dublin told TheJournal.ie.

“In light of the recent measures, they’re saying how come there can be a maximum of six people in one space but in schools there is going to be [a lot more]. 

It’s about returning to schools safely and sustainably and for us that has been our key objective. We need to create an environment in this school which is as safe as it can possibly be for every person that is in here.

In the school of 840 students and 100 staff, lockers have been ripped from hallways and hand sanitiser units installed in their place.

Bright yellow public health signage now hangs alongside colourful student artwork; and classroom floors are lined with industrial tape to ensure students maintain a one-metre distance from each other during lessons. 

“There has to be a huge degree of flexibility and adaptability and for us it was trying to match and marry all of the things we needed to do with the particular school curriculum context,” O’Boyle explained. 

“Everybody would love for the students to stay in school all the time and I don’t think any school wants to be the school that, all of a sudden, you hear has closed because of Covid-19. 

IMG_4423 Covid-19 signage lines the corridors in St Joseph's Secondary School ahead of reopening this week.

“I think, like everybody else, it’s about sustainability. Whenever the virus arrived, we all worked really well but I think there’s a certain amount of complacency that comes in and I suppose that is a worry and concern.”

Staggered start times and designated entrances for school year groups have been set up and communicated with parents and teachers, and cleaning supplies will be allocated to every classroom for students to clean their desk before each class begins. 

The Department of Education has provided advice and guidance but the real burden of reopening schools amidst a pandemic lies with the school management who must interpret and apply that advice to best fit their school’s needs. 

In Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, St Kevin’s Secondary School will begin welcoming students through its doors once again from tomorrow, first with the arrival of its newest students – around 140 first years – before the remaining 530 students return over the coming week. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Friendship Day, an introductory day where first years entering their new school are given the opportunity to meet and make friends with their fellow students,  will this year be the first of the school traditions to be negotiated because of Covid-19. 

“We’ve done it every year for the last number of years and it has been really successful in breaking the ice for students, that transition to secondary school is something that can be a bit daunting,” Principal Brian Doran explained to TheJournal.ie. 

“After that introduction they feel like the ice has been broken for them. They usually do physical activity, art, they do cooking and team-building but this year we’ve had to make changes. 

“This year now we’ve split the year into two halves and there’ll be six smaller groups.

“The cookery will be more a demonstration than hands-on… but I sent the notification to parents and I’ve had parents who have older kids in the school that are delighted we’re going ahead with it because it was really important for their older kids.”

Sacrifices

And like St Joseph’s Community School in Dublin, the rural Wicklow school of over 670 students has had to make other sacrifices to support reopening during a pandemic. 

Two computer rooms, a fitness room, and a cooking facility for home economics classes have been emptied and refurnished as ordinary classrooms to support social distancing. 

Photo montages of student musical productions, once a highlight and a staple of the school term, serve as reminders of activities that have now been lost, if only temporarily, to the pandemic.

Even with those alterations and sacrifices made, the ongoing concern across the country over the recent spike in cases casts a shadow over the reopening of schools. 

“The normal things like your timetable would be done by June and you could largely walk away from it but at that stage we were looking at the numbers declining and so on, it looked like we might have possibly had a normal return to school. 

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“The guidelines from the Department came out in August and it was very much back to the drawing board, and looking at how we can get all the students in the classrooms safely.

And what’s the alternative, if we can’t get this right are we looking at a return to learning from home and it’s up to everybody [...] to try their best to get it right and follow the advice.

Students at St Kevin’s School in Wicklow, like St Joseph’s School in Rush, use tablets to support learning in the classroom, tools which leant well to learning from home in the first half of the year. 

But as a long-term mode of communication between teachers and students, the cons outweigh the pros and many principals and teachers are keen to ensure the immersive classroom-based teaching starting again this week will last until to June. 

“They’re getting the contact with their peers [in school], they’re getting contact with their teachers and they’re in the school.

“School is more than lessons and classes, it’s the community and the relationships and when we were out, I did research with the students [...] and the challenges they felt were around missing their teachers and missing their peers,” Doran said. 

“When you’re balancing things – that’s important, and that’s what they were telling me.”

While some schools in Ireland returned on Tuesday and others today, the majority will return across tomorrow and Friday, and into Monday of next week. 

Internationally, however, some schools have been open for several weeks, including in countries like Germany where a significant number of cases among school communities have already been reported. 

Over schools in Berlin – where, like Ireland, students are told to socially distance and wear face masks – had confirmed cases within two weeks of opening. 

It remains to be seen whether a similar pattern will have emerged in two weeks time here but until then schools remain committed to adapting to a new way of learning over the coming year. 

“It will take time,” Doran said. “Time is going to be the biggest challenge and then we’ll be reacting. The system is in place and looks well on paper but until you have the bodies on the ground and you see it, we’ll be doing a lot of watching and tweaking.

“The challenge is to balance all of that with the core work of the school which is teaching and learning, and making sure kids coming here have the best opportunity.”

Additional reporting from Nicky Ryan

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